Pope John Paul II called for a New Evangelization; Denver answered

Moira Cullings

Shortly after Pope John Paul II visited Denver during World Youth Day in 1993, Curtis Martin had the opportunity to meet with the pope and share his vision for an organization called FOCUS.

The idea was that FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) would evangelize students on college campuses, a place where many people lose their faith. When the pope heard the idea, his message for Martin was simple.

“Be soldiers,” he said.

“We’ve really taken that as a heartfelt call to be soldiers for Christ, to be willing to lay down our lives for the sake of the Gospel,” said John Zimmer, Vice President of Apostolic Development at FOCUS.

Over the past 25 years, FOCUS has impacted tens of thousands of young people across the country and the world.

It’s one of several organizations that hit the ground running after the pope’s visit, sparked by his call for a New Evangelization, and whose impact has shaped the Catholic Church in Denver and throughout the world.

Seminaries bring ‘a richness’ to the archdiocese

After WYD 1993, the Archdiocese of Denver went on to shape future priests first-hand by creating two local seminaries.

Redemptoris Mater was established in 1996 and St. John Vianney in 1999. Both seminaries are located on the campus of the John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization.

“After the experience of the World Youth Day in Denver in August 1993, Archbishop [J. Francis] Stafford saw the goodness of establishing a diocesan in Denver and studied the possibility of opening a diocesan and missionary Redemptoris Mater seminary here,” said Father Tobias Rodriguez-Lasa.

We’ve really taken that as a heartfelt call to be soldiers for Christ, to be willing to lay down our lives for the sake of the Gospel.”

Father Rodriguez-Lasa is the current rector at Redemptoris Mater, an international seminary that brings in men from around the world.

“Internationality adds richness to the formation experience,” said Father Rodriguez-Lasa, “as these future priests learn to live, work, study, play sports and interact in a variety of ways with other fellow seminarians coming from other cultures and world viewpoints.”

Father Rodriguez-Lasa believes bringing in seminarians from other countries “is a richness for everyone in the archdiocese, as it makes present the Catholicity and universality that constitute one of the distinctive characteristics of the Church.”

He finds that having two seminaries in Denver helps the seminarians — especially those from other countries studying for Denver — to stay in close contact with the archbishop and other Church leaders, as well as gain a better understanding of the parishes and ministries in the archdiocese.

Working within those parishes and ministries is a key part of formation at both seminaries, as the seminarians help the young and the elderly and offer services for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. This, said Father Rodriguez-Lasa, is how the seminaries play a role in the New Evangelization in Denver.

“The miracle is that the more we participate in the New Evangelization,” he said, “the more we receive from it.”

Augustine Institute ‘on the cutting edge’ of JPII’s vision

The Augustine Institute has formed disciples who have gone on to evangelize through a variety of apostolates.

By offering an M.A. in Theology, an M.A. in Leadership, study programs, videos and more, the Augustine Institute has created lay leaders in the New Evangelization.

“We opened in August 2006, inspired by Saint Pope John Paul II’s call for a new evangelization . . .” said Tim Gray, president of the Augustine Institute, in a 2016 interview with Denver Catholic.

“We wanted to help people effectively engage, evangelize and win the post-modern culture that believes anyone can have their own private story, but there should be no public story,” said Gray.

Those who participate in the Augustine Institute go on to work in a variety of apostolates, said Gray.

“We are also amazed by the new ways graduates go into the field,” he said.

Organizations created by graduates of the Augustine Institute include Camp Wojtyla and Christ in the City. Others have gone on to work as leaders in the Archdiocese of Denver office and our Catholic schools.

The miracle is that the more we participate in the New Evangelization, the more we receive from it.”

And by launching formed.org, an online video streaming service that offers Catholic content to people around the world, those who aren’t seeking a degree but simply want to go deeper in their faith have the opportunity to do so.

“This is on the cutting edge of the New Evangelization,” said Gray.

FOCUS fights on the ‘battleground for souls’

Since Pope John Paul II’s visit, FOCUS has evangelized tens of thousands of college students. The organization expects that by 2022, around 75,000 students who were involved with FOCUS have transitioned into many of the 17,000 plus parishes in the United States.

“I think JPII not only challenged the Church for lay Catholics to evangelize, but in his World Youth Day efforts, he really challenged the young people to say that this is your role, your responsibility, so take an active part,” said Zimmer.

Zimmer admits the pope not only had a deep impact on the culture in Denver, but also on his own life.

“Even for me in this lost, dazed and confused world I was in at the time, it was still a very moving experience to see the pope land in the helicopter and watch him come in,” said Zimmer.

“It planted a seed [in me] that took a decade to come to fruition.”

Zimmer joined FOCUS in 1999 shortly after it was founded, and he and his wife first served as missionaries. Since then, Zimmer has held a variety of roles in the corporate office in Denver.

At FOCUS, college campuses are seen as a critical time when students need the Gospel to build upon a strong foundation for a sturdy faith life.

“The college campus is really a battleground for souls,” said Zimmer. “I think the Church needs to do as good a job as possible at trying to reach souls on college campuses when they’re in a time of questioning and they’re away from their parents for the first time.

“It’s a really pivotal moment in their life, and the Church needs to be there for them.”

One of the biggest ways FOCUS spreads the New Evangelization, said Zimmer, is by showing that the Gospel still matters today.

“I think one of the great opportunities we’ve had is to be a witness that the Gospel is still relevant,” said Zimmer, “and it’s relevant to young people.”

25 years down the road, FOCUS has high hopes for its evangelization efforts.

It’s a really pivotal moment in their life, and the Church needs to be there for them.”

“By then, hopefully millions of people who were involved in FOCUS will be planted in parishes throughout the country,” said Zimmer, “and there will be renewal happening all over — not just through FOCUS, but through all the other great apostolates.”

Seminaries
  • In the 2018-2019 academic year
    • 73 men studying for the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Denver
    • 52 men from outside the Archdiocese of Denver studying for the priesthood at St. John Vianney
    • 33 men studying for the priesthood at Redemptoris Mater
    • 125 men in formation studying in Denver at both St. John Vianney and Redemptoris Mater
FOCUS
  • In the 2018-2019 academic year
    • Nearly 700 missionaries are serving full-time on 153 college campuses
    • Missionaries will serve college campuses across 42 U.S. states and five international locations
    • A campus in England, Germany and Ireland, and two campuses in Austria, will be served by FOCUS missionaries
  • By 2022
    • FOCUS expects to have 75,000 students transitioned into many of the over 17,000 Catholic parishes in the United States
  • Since its founding
    • Tens of thousands of students have been involved with FOCUS
    • Out of those involved in FOCUS, 732 have decided to pursue religious vocations

COMING UP: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.